March 29, 2021
by Rhoda A. Carpenter, former Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible; alumna
This little book on the psalms came out of an increasing recognition of the loss for many of the importance of the psalms. The book (along with my earlier book: A God Who Comes Near) was written to reawaken awareness of the beauty of the psalms and their ability to speak with relevance to our contemporary culture, a generation in danger of losing the psalmist’s voice. May all young and old hear the voice of the psalmist pointing them to a God who desires to be with us wherever our journey takes us. May all who dare to enter into the profound beauty of these timeless words encounter a God who bends down to listen to the cries of His people and draws them into a deeper understanding of who He is and how He loves.
My journey into the richness of the psalms is anchored in a life-long engagement with the land of the Bible. A spark of interest in the biblical world was first awakened with a half-year spent in the Gilead region of Jordan. My husband and I worked in a hospital during a semester abroad, he as a beginning physician and I as instructor for nursing students. Many trips to the Middle East, with family, students, and fellow travelers enlarged my understanding of the vivid imagery in the Psalms. This insight was further nurtured by study at Jerusalem University College and the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, Israel. I was drawn to engage the text and deepen my understanding of the connection of scripture with land from which the writings emerged. I found myself in seminary, hungrily absorbing book after book. The words of the psalms would jump from the page and into my heart. After graduating from seminary with focus on the Old Testament (Masters in Bible and Theology, Masters in Counseling, Doctor of Ministry) I spent over fifteen years teaching Bible (first to undergraduates and then seminary students). Ten years were spent as Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at the seminary from which I graduated. The original language of the Psalms intrigued me with its literary beauty tied to the very earthy imagery of the land. Six additional years of studying Hebrew drew me deeper.
On a personal level, more than fifteen years of sharing the psalms with my husband and family have drawn me deeper into the power of the psalms to speak into life’s sorrows and joys giving voice to what is often inexpressible. We end our day with a psalm and prayers for our children and their children. Again and again the voice of the psalmist lifts our eyes heavenward and we find ourselves standing in the presence of God.
My reflections on the Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) have come out of this growing desire to live all of my life with a deeper awareness of God’s presence. In the quiet moments of the day I began to sense His presence infusing all of life, every breath, every word, and every action. I began writing my thoughts on the Psalms of Ascents a year ago while anticipating a trip to Jerusalem. The words of the psalms came alive as my husband and I walked up the steps to the Temple Mount and felt the connection with friends in the city. Little did I know that one year later our country and world would be shuttered in fear and uncertainty with social distancing separating rather than uniting as the coronavirus spread with rapid vengeance.
The Psalms of Ascents were never just words read in ritual by the ancient Israelites. They were songs that reflected a heart cry of God’s people as they began a journey preparing themselves to enter God’s presence in the Temple in Jerusalem. I began to understand the longing of pilgrims through the centuries to be in place where God was present. The timeless prayers echoed down through the centuries as I became aware of God’s call to come into His presence. These few psalms in the middle of the psalter reflect a journey both physical and spiritual to prepare one’s heart, mind, and very being to enter into the presence of a Holy God. The psalms rise above the original context in which they were composed and become timeless prayers for all who have journeyed in the face of uncertainty, stumbled on their journey, lifted their eyes heavenward, and found God’s presence in a new and deeper way. Now more than ever the words ring with relevance.