*You can learn a lot about a culture based on the songs that they sing. Our songs tell us about what matters to us. They reflect the values that stir our hearts and our souls. Songs, for better or worse, are used to teach.
Over the next several weeks I will be posting on the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), those songs that the people of Israel sang on their pilgrimages to Jerusalem. I’ve been working through these in my devotions and, as I go along, I’ll also be posting insights from the book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson, which is his extended meditation on these wonderful Psalms. I invite you to follow along with me and share your own insights as we go.
“I call on the Lord in my distress, and he assures me.
Save me, Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.
What will he do to you, and what more besides, you deceitful tongues?
He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom bush.
Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have i lived among those who hate peace.
I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”
~Psalm 120, a song of ascents (NIV)
As I reflect on this Psalm I see within it a cry for something more. The word for “peace” used by the Psalmist is shalom. We often misunderstand this word, thinking of it as nothing more than the absence of war. But shalom is a much richer word than this. This is a cry from a person who longs for God’s reign of peace. This is the cry of one who, in the words of Jesus, hungers and thirsts for righteousness (Matt. 5:6).
And yet, the psalmist lives in a place that is very much the opposite of what he longs for. He has settled among the unrighteous. After years and years living among the tents of the selfish and self-indulgent, the violent and the oppressive, the song writer has begun to realize just how far he has fallen: how his life has begun to reflect the values of those around him and how far this journey has led him from the life that he would have wished.
So he cries out in pain and longing for something else, something more. He longs for a life of justice, peace, beauty, purity, and joy. He longs for righteousness. He longs for shalom. And this longing ultimately points him to God. The psalmist cries out to God, asking him to judge and remove the source of his temptations and afflictions.
But even that is not enough for the song writer. He desires to move away from this old life and toward a place of righteousness and shalom. And so the pilgrimage begins. He has begun his ascent. It is an act of repentance: a longing and a pursuit after God as he turns from one way of life toward another.
But God is not far from him. For it is God who has been coaxing him all along. It has been the voice of the Lord calling to him. Calling him out from the tents of Meshek and Kedar, calling him to a place of shalom, stirring up within him a hunger and a thirst for righteousness, stirring up a longing for God Himself.
And so begins the journey of a disciple. As Eugene Peterson reminds us in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, repentance is the first step along our journey with Christ. We begin to realize that the solutions that our culture offers us to the challenges, difficulties, and longings of our heart don’t really satisfy, and we begin to see them for what they really are: lies. And so, in our discontent, we turn away from that way of living and begin to seek out something that will truly satisfy. We begin to search for God.
And this is true not only at the beginning of the journey, but throughout it as well. I believe that this is the place in which every Christian finds him or herself at times. We find ourselves trapped in the midst of old sins and temptations, hungering after old addictions and vices. And suddenly we realize how far we’ve fallen and we are sickened and ashamed. We long to be with our God again, walking in his ways, and pursuing life in a kingdom of shalom, purity, and righteousness. And so we cry out in our despair and we long for Jesus to come and start us on the journey with him anew. We long for the Holy Spirit to take up residence within us in greater and greater fullness. We hear the voice of our Father, the Lord, calling us out of the darkness into which we’ve settled and calling us into his marvelous light; into the house of the Lord.
And yet, the moment we come to this place, we begin to see that God was never far from us int he first place. In fact, he has been pursuing us all along and he has given us his very presence to go with us and within us, helping us grow as we journey along with him. It is his voice that we hear calling us out and inviting us to walk along with him. And this brings us hope and joy, strength and endurance in the journey. Such is the beauty of the life of a disciple: a life in which we move from one dead-end way of living and into an adventure as we walk along with our Lord and God. The question is: will we take that first step with him?
“Repentance, the first word in Christian immigration, sets us on the way to traveling in the light. It is a rejection that is also an acceptance, a leaving that develops into an arriving, a no to the world that is a yes to God.”
~Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, pg. 33