There is no difference of opinion as to the meaning of the word "degrees". It means "steps", but interpretations of the use of the word in this connection manifest a great difference and discordance.
Some think these Psalms were so called because they were sung on the fifteen steps of the Temple. But there is no evidence that there were fifteen steps. In Ezekiel's Temple (Ezek. 40:22, 31) there are to be two flights; one of seven steps in the outer court, and another of eight steps in the inner court. But that Temple is the subject of prophecy, and is still future.
Others suggest "a Song of the higher choir", "on the stairs of some high place"; others, "in a higher key". Others interpret them of "the going up of the Ark" to Zion; others, of "the going up of the tribes" to the feasts; others, "a Song of high degree". Others refer them to "a synthetic arrangement of the parallel lines"; others, that they refer to "the going up from Babylon", which makes them all "post-exilic". Others regard them as referring to the yet future return of Israel from their long dispersion; while yet others spiritualize all the expressions, and interpret them of the experiences of the Church of God at all times, and in the present day.
One thing is clear, i.e. that all these interpretations cannot be correct. So we still look for one which shall be worthy of the dignity of the Word of God as "written for our learning"; and one which shall produce and combine intellectual enjoyment with experimental satisfaction.
Dr. Thirtle (*1) has called attention to the use of the definite article. The Hebrew reads "A Song of THE Degrees" (Shir hamma'aloth). In this simple fact lies the key to the solution of the problem, which is as simple in its nature as it is grand in its results.
Once we note the use of the definite article, "THE Degrees", we naturally ask what Degrees? The answer comes from the Word of God itself, and not from the guesses and imaginations of men. The only "degrees" of which we read in the Bible are "the degrees" on the sundial of Ahaz, by which the shadow of the sun went backward in the days of his son Hezekiah, as a sign from Jehovah that he should recover from his sickness, while Jerusalem was surrounded by the armies of the king of Assyria, and Hezekiah was under sentence of death from the King of Terrors (see 2Kings 20:8-11, and the Structure of the chapters in Isa. 36-39). Scripture knows of no other steps or "degrees" that can be connected with the shadow of the sun.
On recovery from his sickness, Hezekiah said (Isa. 38:20) :
"Jehovah was ready to save me :
Therefore we will sing MY SONGS (*2) to the stringed instruments
All the days of our life
In the house of Jehovah." (*3)
More than 250 years ago (1602-75) this interpretation was suggested in a passing remark by Dr. John Lightfoot in his work on Old Testament Chronology : but so far as Dr. Thirtle is concerned, it was his own independent discovery.
The number of these Psalms (fifteen) adds to its testimony to the certainty of this interpretation. It corresponds with the number of the years (fifteen), which were added to Hezekiah's life : while the number written by himself (ten) corresponds with the number of "the degrees" by which "the shadow of the sun went backward".
Hezekiah called them "MY songs". There was no need to put his own name to them, but he put the names to the other five. The one by Solomon is in the center, with two by David on either side. In each of the seven Psalms (on either side of the central Psalm) the name "Jehovah" occurs twenty-four times, and "Jah" twice (once in the third Psalm of each seven). In the central Psalm, "Jehovah" occurs three times.
There are five groups consisting of three Psalms each. The first of each group has Distress for its subject; the second has Trust in Jehovah; while the third has Blessing and peace in Zion.
In the notes on these Psalms, the passages in the Kings, Chronicles, and Isaiah, to which they refer, are carefully supplied : the passages in the historical books also are referred to in these Psalms.
Here we give, in order, the facts of Hezekiah's history which are referred to in these Psalms. These fifteen points of contact can be used in connection both with the Psalms and the historical books.
We have noted fifteen events in the life of Hezekiah which find
their counterpart, and are celebrated, in these fifteen Psalms. Space
forbids our giving here more that the bare references. Further details
will be found in the notes in the historical books, the prophet Isaiah,
and the Psalms in question.
Which is mentioned in Isa. 37:4, and 2Kings 19:16, is referred to in
Pss. 120:2, 3, and 123:3, 4.
Which we find in 2Kings 19:25, 26, and Isa. 37:26, 27, are repeated
and practically quoted in Ps. 129:5-7.
In 2Chron. 32:21. This is referred to in Ps. 129:4, 5.
Isa. 38:3, 10-20. 2Chron. 32:20, and 2Kings 19:2, 4, 15-19; 20:2,
3, finds more than its echo in Pss. 120:1; 123:1-3; 130:1, 2.
Was He to Whom Hezekiah addressed his prayer. This was in retort
to idolatrous railings of Rab-shakeh in 2Chron. 32:19. See notes
on Pss. 121:1, 2, 6; 123:1 (cp. 2Kings 19:15. Isa. 37:16); 124:8;
Is seen in Isa. 38:17; and in Ps. 120:6, 7 we see the expression of
it; for in 2Chron. 32:1-3 Sennacherib's "face was for war" : hence,
when Hezekiah says "I am for peace", who can doubt the reference to 2Kings
18:19, &c. and Isa. 36:5, &c. See further Ps. 122:6, 7, 125:5,
and 128:6, and his own last desire for peace in 2Kings 20:19.
In 2Kings 19:32-34; 20:6, we have Jehovah's own answer to Sennacherib's
challenge (2Chron. 32:10, 15, 17. Isa. 36:20; 37:11). Notice
how Hezekiah treasured up this Divine pledge : Ps. 121:2-8; 124:1-3,
6; 125:2; 126:2, 3; 127:1.
This was the ground of Jehovah's promise (2Kings 19:34) in answer to
Hezekiah's prayer in v. 14. See also 2Kings 20:5, 6.
Observe how these words are taken up in 132:1-10.
In 2Kings 19:29, and Isa. 37:30 this sign is given; and we see it referred
to in Ps. 126:5, 6; 128:2. The continued perseverance of the sowers
under great disappointment gives a picture of peaceful agriculturists at
work at home, and not of exiles in a foreign land, or on their way home
This is the first thing recorded of Hezekiah (2Kings 18:5). It
was the taunt of Rab-shakeh (2Kings 18:28-31), and is mentioned again and
again (Isa. 36:18; 37:10). Now compare Ps. 121:2; 125:1-3; 127:1;
This is not mentioned in Scripture; but Sennacherib has written it down for us, and it may be read to-day in the British Museum in London, on a hexagonal cylinder of this very Sennacherib, King of Assyria (607-583 B.C.). (*4)
By the kind permission of the Oxford University Press, we are privileged to give a reproduction of a photograph of this cylinder.
It is "one of the finest and most perfect objects of its class and kind ever discovered, and its importance as an historical document can hardly be overrated. It contains four hundred and eighty-seven lines of closely written by legible cuneiform text, inscribed in the Eponymy of Belimuranni, prefect of Karkemish".
The text records eight expeditions of Sennacherib. Among them is his description of this very siege of Jerusalem in the reign of Hezekiah.
By the same kind permission we are enabled to give a photographic facsimile of that portion of the cylinder, beginning with the eleventh line of the central column, which is shown in the illustration below.
LINES 11-24 OF THE CENTRAL
607-583 (*4) B.C. (RECORDING COLUMN OF THE CYLINDER.
HIS CAMPAIGNS) NOW IN THE
BRITISH MUSEUM (55-10-3. 1).
The words we wish to refer to are in the eleventh to the twenty-first
lines. Sennacherib says :
11. "I fixed upon him. And of Hezekiah [king of the]
12. Jews, who had not submitted to my yoke,
13. forty-six of his fenced cities, and the strongholds, and the smaller cities
14. which were round about them and which were without number,
15. by the battering of rams, and the attack of engines
16. and by the assaults of foot soldiers, and ..... (*5)
17. I besieged, I captured, 200,150 people, small and great, male and female,
18. horses, and mules, and asses, and camels, and men,
19. and sheep innumerable from their midst I brought out, and
20. I reckoned [them] as spoil. [Hezekiah] himself like a caged bird within Jerusalem,
21. his royal city, I shut in, &c.
Now read the words of Hezekiah in Ps. 124:7 :
"Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers :
The snare is broken, and we are delivered".
This takes the Psalm right back to the very days of Hezekiah and Sennacherib.
Indeed, it takes us back beyond the days of Hezekiah and Sennacherib : for it is a Psalm of David.
Some 360 years before Hezekiah (964-603 B.C.), David had found himself in similar trouble. He was hunted like a partridge in the mountains, pursued as a dog, and sought as a flea, by Saul. He had been shut up in his hiding places (*6). At such a similar time of Hezekiah's need, when he was shut up in his house by sickness, and besieged in Jerusalem by Sennacherib, he was indeed "like a caged bird". What Psalm could more suitably express the sense of his need, and his praise for Divine deliverance?
He had no need himself to write another "Song". Here was one ready to his hand. Indeed, David's reference to his escape "as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers" would be seized on by Hezekiah as exactly suited to express his deliverance from the "snare", as well as from the siege of Sennacherib.
It makes the history live again before our eyes.
We can see the vain boasting of his enemies; and hear his own praise,
as he exclaims :
"Blessed be Jehovah, Who hath not given us as prey to their teeth" (Ps. 124:6).
The foregoing statement of Sennacherib (see xi, p. 98), that he had taken away 200,150 captives from all the tribes of Israel, enables us to understand Hezekiah's prayer "for the remnant that are left". There is no need to forcibly introduce the captivity in Babylon. The "turning of captivity" was an idiomatic expression (by the Fig. Paronomasia (*7), Ap. 6), used to emphasize the return of good fortune : not necessarily deliverance from a literal captivity of bondage. Jehovah "turned the captivity of Job" (Job 42:10) by delivering him out of his troubles and giving him twice as much as he had before.
Ps. 126:1-3 refers to the deliverance of Hezekiah and Zion, as well
as to the captives mentioned on the cylinder of Sennacherib (see p. 98).
This was one of the most prominent features of Hezekiah's character.
It occupied his thoughts and filled his heart. The first act of his
reign was to "open the doors of the house of Jehovah" (2Chron. 29:3) which
Ahaz his father had "shut up" (2Chron. 28:24). This was "in the first
year of his reign, in the first month". See also Isa. 37:1, 14.
2Kings 20:8. Isa. 38:20, 22. Now read Pss. 122:1, 9 and 134:1,
While the king of Assyria was besieging the gates of Zion, and the King of Terrors was besieging Hezekiah who was on his bed of sickness, Hezekiah at that moment had no heir to his throne; and the promise of Jehovah to David (2Sam. 7:12) seemed about to fail. Like Abraham when he had "no seed" (Gen. 15), Hezekiah must have been anxious at such a crisis.
He trusted in Jehovah for victory over his enemies; and he trusted in Jehovah for His faithfulness as to His promise to David. This is shown in Ps. 132:11. In this crisis Jehovah sent Isaiah to Hezekiah with the promise of a son (2Kings 20:18. Isa. 39:7). Not until three of the fifteen added years had passed was the promise fulfilled, in the birth of Manasseh. This it is which accounts for Hezekiah's anxiety.
There is nothing in the return from Babylon that can have any connection
whatever with Psalms 127 and 128. Rejoicing in the multiplication
of children in those sad days would be quite out of place. But in
the case of Hezekiah, they stand out in all their full significance, and
furnish an undesigned coincidence of the greatest importance. Read
127:3-5, and the whole of Ps. 128, the last verse of which reflects Hezekiah's
words (Isa. 39:8).
The proper time for keeping the Passover was already past, but rather than wait eleven months, Hezekiah resolved to keep it in the second month, according to the provision made for such as occasion in Num. 9:1-11 (2Chron. 30:1-3).
Moreover, Hezekiah would have it for "all Israel" (2Chron. 30:5, 6). So the tribes from the North came down and untied with the tribes of the South (2Chron. 30:11, 18). The hand of God was with them to give them "ONE HEART" (2Chron. 30:12). Then we read in 2Chron. 30:25, 26 of the happiness of it all.
Psalm 133 celebrates this great event of Hezekiah's reign; but it is a Psalm of David. Yes, but it celebrates another occasion precisely similar, when David's message "bowed the heart of all the men of Judah, even as the heart of ONE MAN" (2Sam. 19:14; cp. v. 9). It was exactly suited, therefore, to Hezekiah's circumstances. Hezekiah's purpose was to unite the tribes of the Northern Kingdom with the tribes of the South. Hermon's dew was one with the dew on Zion. The same cloud of the night mist united Israel and Judah; and we are invited to "Behold how good and pleasant it was for brethren to dwell together AT ONE".
These fifteen points put these "Songs of THE degrees" back into their
historic setting, more than 600 years before Christ; and rescues them from
the hands of those who would bring them down to about 150 B.C. and force
them to have some connection with times and events for which no historical
basis whatever can be found.