Bible Affirming Truth

The 15 Steps and the Psalms of Ascents

A 60-metres wide flight of stairs, largely original from the Second Temple period now spans the South side of the old Jerusalem wall at the Temple Mount, Millions of sandals (including Jesus’) had moved up and down these steps in their days as Jewish pilgrims came from all of Jerusalem and other cities to worship God for the annual feasts.

Few places in Jerusalem give the sense of the Second Temple period like the Southern Steps excavations at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Because excavation on the Temple Mount itself is still prohibited, this area immediately south of the mount offers important archaeology to help unpack the history of the Temple Mount during the first century. Excavation of this area began in 1968, halted and restarted in the 1990s.

At the top of the Southern Steps, at the far east of the stairway, stands a triple gate — today closed with stones. At the far west of the broad staircase, a double gate stood — today only a portion of this gate and its lintel can been seen. This gate represented an exit, and the stairway below it — with their alternating wide and narrow steps — offering a place for teaching, for visiting, or for a simple descent. Three times a year worshippers would enter the Temple from these steps.

The steps on the southern side of the City wall, the lintel of the former double gate was still insitu. It was believed the pilgrims sang the Psalms of Ascents on these steps.

It is perhaps not difficult to start realizing that these are the steps that once Jesus had walked on. This could have been the place where the apostles had been taught and where Jesus’ parents have brought him. Many have read the Psalms of Ascents as they walked up the stairs in remembrance of what the pilgrims have done for the last hundreds and thousands of years. Psalm 120 is the first psalm of Ascents. The first Psalm is read at base of the stairs and move up one psalm at a time to Psalm 134 for the rest of the 14 wider steps. A wider step will frequently appear amidst the narrower steps and amazingly, when it came to Psalm 134, one is able to touch the wall (meaning one will be entering the temple in Jesus’ days).

Psalm 120

As for the pilgrimages to the Holy Temple, the Bible says:

“Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths, and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed.” —Deuteronomy 16:16. Psalms 120-134 all begins with the phrase “Song of Ascents”. These Psalms are believed to be used by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the festivals and sacrifices. (These festivals can be found listed in Exodus 23:14-16). The males are to make the sacrifices at the Tabernacle as no other places would be suitable. Later on in the days of the Judges, when every man ‘did what was right in their own eyes’, they may use local high places while centralized worship had not existed. For the Israelites, when the Monarchy became established, centralized worship became important. If God choses a King, he would do a descent worship to show that God’s instructions were fervently followed. David had chosen Jerusalem. After the Exile, Jerusalem became even more important. The Israelites have to re-orientate their faith to explain why God has made them loose their battle to the Babylonians, and why allowing Jerusalem to be captured and its people scattered.

The faith of the Israelites continued, understanding that their God is the God without boundaries, holy and true, even when it’s people is not in the land He gave them. The exiles however yearned to return to Jerusalem and their own land. The King of Persia, Cyrus had allowed them to return, the city became very important to all the Israelites. The Jewish community wanted to know what made them a people, so Jerusalem became a sacred space that formed the identity in this particular way. Those who chose to remain in a foreign land would make a pilgrimage to this city in order to show they followed God’s commands and to make sacrifices to atone for their sins. The Israelites who live in the rest of Israel but not in Jerusalem also make regular pilgrimage to the city. The Psalms of Ascents were sung on these pilgrimage journeys from near and far.

The thousands that made the pilgrimage and recited the Psalms of Ascents from memory several times a year were reminded of the keys of life such as faith, forgiveness, grace, mercy, sin, suffering, pain, enemies, abandonment, family, children, community, peace, hope, love, brotherhood and sacrifice. Practicing this three times a year helped them maintain right attitudes toward the Lord and toward others.

Reciting the Psalms 120-134 on the steps. Amazingly the total number fits precisely the wider steps.

Some believe the Psalms were sung on the journey itself while others believe that as the pilgrim approach the temple, one Psalm will be sung on each temple step leading to the Courts of the Temple. Some believe it’s akin to a musical crescendo building on each other which gets louder and louder until the doxology of Psalm 134 becomes ringing and God embracing, despite all the bad things happening around them.

“1 Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord! 2 Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord! 3 May the Lord bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!” – Psalm 134.