If you’re praying the Psalms in the Prayer Book, there is one little detail that you’re missing: the superscriptions, usually printed in italics, above verse 1. Sometimes they are titles; sometimes they note the author or a situation relevant to the psalm’s origin; sometimes they say something about the music or the instruments. Some Bible translations even make the superscription “verse 1” and start the text of the psalm on “verse 2”.
The usefulness of these superscriptions is… honestly rather poor. When you compare the Greek and Hebrew Old Testaments, many of them are different. When you compare different manuscript groups even within the same language, they still vary. In short, it’s very difficult to tell how old a given superscription is, when they were added, by whom, and for what purpose. Even if some of them are authentic they can still be misleading; to say a Psalm is “Of David” could mean both written by him or written in the tradition of David. To say a Psalm is from “Asaph and his sons” could mean both written by him and his biological children or written by the school of Temple musicians that was first run by Asaph.
And so, quite rightly, liturgical texts such as the Prayer Book do not include the superscriptions for any psalm. After all, when it’s time to pray, we don’t read titles and labels, we pray the prayers.
But there are some superscriptions that can be useful. Psalms 120 through 134 are all labeled “A Song of Ascents.” It is said that this label refers to their liturgical use among the faithful Judeans, who would sing or chant these psalms during their approach (or “ascent”) to Jerusalem for a high feast like Passover, or Pentecost. This tells us nothing about their origin, but that doesn’t really matter; these are prayers to be prayed. That they were especially used in a particular context can give us insight into how we might use them too.
And, lo and behold, there are two places in the 2019 Prayer Book where this group of Psalms shows up. One is on page 735, where they are commended as appropriate psalms to be prayed on the 31st day of the month, when the 30-day cycle has ended but the next month has not yet begun. This is kind of an “ascent”, approaching the beginning of a new month. The other place they are mentioned is on page 39 where Psalms 120 through 133 are offered as suitable additional psalms for Midday Prayer. (Psalm 134 is omitted in this reference because it’s already on the list for Compline.) So there again, at midday, we have a sort of “ascent”, not quite at one of the major Offices of prayer for the day, but simply stopping along the way of the day’s journey to offer some brief prayers before continuing on in our labor.
In the Daily Office, the Psalms of Ascents are normally read on the 27th and 28th days of the month (today and tomorrow). They are mostly pretty short, and they touch on all sorts of topics. (This may be something of a relief after the epic-length Psalm 119 occupying three days of prayer!) Most of them are pretty happy and cheerful, celebrating God’s deliverance and protection. Several of them are sober, expressing trust in the Lord in the face of evil. Though among them is also Psalm 130, “Out of the deep…” which is traditionally associated with death and grief.
One could say that they inspire and model for us the traditional practice of “keeping the hours”, or offering regular but very brief prayers at certain times of day. They do this by being short, concise, and memorable. On the ascent to Jerusalem, stop and offer these prayers, one by one, along the way. On the way through your day, stop and pray these psalms, or other prayers, bit by bit, along the way.
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