We’ve come to the last Psalm in the Songs of Ascents (Psalm 120 – 134). If these are Pilgrim Psalms, this one fits the end of a pilgrimage. It is night. The feast has ended, the sacrifices are performed, and the pilgrims are now considering the return journey. 

This Psalm refers to those who minister by night in the house of the Lord”. In the Bible, night often represents the time of waiting for God: I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). It reflects a gap between what is and what will be – and so is connected with the deep laments we see in the Psalms. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

In Advent, Christians may also be thinking of Isaiah’s prophecy: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2) – and of our own waiting for Christ to return. When some of us are facing all kinds of struggles, this night may be forbidding indeed.

However, this Psalm is also set in the light of the temple, where ministers stand in the presence of God. Here the pilgrims are guests and visitors; the priests will continue to offer worship on their behalf after they have gone. Likewise, in the book of Revelation, we see that in our own worship; we are only joining the worship of heaven, which began before us and will continue after us (Revelation 4). 

In fact, this worship has been going on since before the world began. The Songs of Ascents frequently remind us that God is the maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2, 124:8, 134:3). God does not rely on human worship for strength – as our political causes rely on our votes. Instead, God draws the people of God into worship as an act of love, where they find strength by remembering their deliverance in history, and by looking to the future when all nations would join them. Likewise, Christians gather together to remember Jesus’ death until He returns (1 Corinthians 11:26).

So perhaps these were some of the images in the minds of the first pilgrims: the pain of waiting for God, with the joy of standing in His presence in Jerusalem. Together, these may have made them rather anxious about returning home. Surely, to go home was to go away from the sanctuary – back out into the darkness of distance from God. But, in response we get the theme of the Psalm: God’s blessing on the people as they return. In verses 1 and 2 we have God’s people encouraging the servants of the Lord”. In verse 3 we have the reply of the priests: May God bless you from Zion.” 

At the end of every pilgrimage was the return, to live in the light of what God had done. Indeed, the prophets often have to point out that the temple festivals on their own were irrelevant without this return and obedience (see for example Isaiah 1:10 – 17, Jeremiah 7:1 – 11). But this return isn’t God leaving us to our own strength, but sending us out with His blessing. This blessing is the presence of God Himself. It is the fulfilment of the promise made at Christ’s birth – that of God with us, Immanuel (Matthew 1:22), and that Jesus is with us to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

It is also a promise hinted at in this famous 1908 poem by Minnie Louise Haskins, used in the 1939 Christmas message of King George VI: I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”