We’re in Psalm 120, after completing the lengthy Psalm 119. Psalm 120 is the first of the songs of degrees, or, in Hebrew, the shir ha–ma-aloth. The Psalmist in Psalm 120 is asking God for deliverance from his belligerent persecutors.
What does the Hebrew word ma-aloth mean, and how does that help us to understand the meaning of the songs of degrees? There are different ideas about this. Here is a sample:
1. The ma-aloth are stairs, or steps. Ezekiel 40:26 uses the word to mean stairs. Rabbinic literature, specifically Mishnah Middoth 2:5 and Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 51b, note that there are fifteen songs of degrees, and also fifteen steps of the Temple. Seeing the ma-aloth as steps to the Temple often coincides with interpreting the songs of degrees in light of the cult or pilgrimage: going to the Temple and ascending the Temple steps. One element of worship, as we can tell from many Psalms, is complaining to God about one’s enemies and asking God for justice, which is the subject of Psalm 120.
2. In Ezra 7:9, the word ma-alah is used within the context of Jews going up from Babylon and journeying to Jerusalem. Ma-alah here expresses Israel’s return from exile, in short. Leslie Allen seems to interpret Psalm 120 in light of this theme. Allen believes that Psalm 120 was originally a Psalm complaining about enemies, but that it was later incorporated into a “manual of processional songs” to express Israel’s sense of alienation that was felt in the Diaspora. V 5, after all, mentions the Psalmist dwelling in other lands, even though (according to many scholars) those lands probably function symbolically rather than literally in Psalm 120 (their point being that the Psalmist was dwelling among warlike people who were like the people of Meshek and Kedar, not that the Psalmist was actually in those regions). Allen states that Israel “knew from bitter experience the hostility of xenophobic neighbors.”
3. E.W. Bullinger interprets the songs of degrees in light of events during the reign of Hezekiah, for II Kings 20:8-11 and Isaiah 38:20 mention ma-aloth in telling the story of Hezekiah’s recovery from sickness, which coincided with the shadow going backwards by ten degrees on the sundial of Hezekiah. Bullinger believes that there is a pattern in the songs of degrees of distress, trust in Jehovah, and blessing and peace in Zion, and he relates Psalm 120 to the distress that Hezekiah and Jerusalem experienced when the Assyrians were taunting them and threatening to conquer Jerusalem. Bullinger does not necessarily hold that these songs were written during the time of Hezekiah, for he believes that some were written in David’s time, as their ascriptions state. But Bullinger maintains that the songs of degrees were relevant to what was going on in Hezekiah’s day.
4. Then there are spiritual interpretations. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo interpreted the songs of degrees in light of the soul’s ascent to God. Augustine said that the point of Psalm 120 was that, as the Christian spiritually grows, he get enemies from among those who are not exactly on a spiritual path of growth.
5. Some believe that ma-aloth is simply a technical poetic term. I hope it’s more than that and relates somehow to the meaning of the songs, not just their musical style!