The Book of Psalms - An Overview, King Hezekiah and Psalms: Pt. III of IV
- King Hezekiah (727/715 - 698/687), was a remarkable man, soldier, statesman, architect, poet, and saint. He was the only man who ever knew for certain just when he would not die, just how long he had to live. The repercussions from Hezekiah's extra lease of fifteen years are felt among the nations to this very day, especially to the whole Christendom has good cause to thank God for Hezekiah's miraculous healing and his extra fifteen years of life. Let us look up the records in which the great prophet Isaiah recorded 38:1-8 (Please read the passage in order to understand the following suggestions).
Two interesting questions are suggested to our minds by this passage. First, did God have special purpose in thus lengthening Hezekiah's life? Second, how did Hezekiah use those added fifteen years? The answer to the first question is yes, God certainly had a special purpose in lengthening Hezekiah's life. The answer to the second question is, that in view of all available data, Hezekiah used those added fifteen years so profitably that we Christians are still reaping the benefit today. Read his noble account of his early reign in 2 Chronicles 29:1-11. He was the king who destroyed the bronze serpent Moses formed in the wilderness, till King Hezekiah's time the Israelites worshiped that 'Nehushtan' (2 Kings 18:4) .
Hezekiah began to reign when he was twenty-five years old, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. During his extra fifteen years, the arrangements and transmission of the Old Testament Scriptures, was done by Hezekiah. To begin with, his zeal for the house of Jehovah (2 Chr.29:3-19) and for the worship of Jehovah (2 Chr.29:20-36). In connection with his re-establishment of the temple services and strict adherence to the Scriptures has been memorable. Note the 2 Chronicles chapter 29 verses 25, 27, and 30 that explain his diligent and his delight in the worship of Jehovah, and the Word of Jehovah. The sacred Scripture that had accumulated up to his own time were his guide and authority in all the service that he undertook. 2 Chronicles 3:21 speak the "work" which he began, not only in the service of the "house of Jehovah", but also "in the law and in the commandments".
Hezekiah formed a guild of men specially set apart for such devout literary work. They are called "the men of Hezekiah". Those "the men of Hezekiah" had a good hand in the shaping of the Book of Proverbs in to its present form. Look at Proverbs 25:1, which marks the third of the three main divisions of that book. It says, "These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, copied out." This guild of copyists, transcribers and transmitters of the sacred text would begin and end their work simply with this one book of Proverbs alone. Their work would extend to the other sacred writings, and Hezekiah himself would maintain a special interest in it, being chief supervisor of all their labors in the collecting and editing and arranging of the Scriptures. Probably leaders among "the men of Hezekiah" were "Shebna the scribe, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder (2 Kings 18:18), and Isaiah the prophet.
There seems to be a curious yet unmistakable confirmation of Hezekiah's work on the Scripture, in the form of a certain peculiarity which very few Old Testament scholars noted about. At the end of the many of the Old Testament, in the Hebrew originals, 'three capital letters are found, three "majuscules" or "uncials" as they are called in paleographic terminology. No Hebrew transcriber and no compositor has dared to omit these three capital letters, even though not knowing their meaning. And so, although no one can tell us how they came to be there, or what they mean for certain, they still stand there, even in the printed editions of the Hebrew Scriptures. And what are these three capital letters? They are the three Hebrew letters, Heth, Zayin, Quoph; (in English, H,Z,K). These three letters are the first three in the Hebrew name of Hezekiah, and well stand for an abbreviation of his name, in the same way that men put their initials on documents today. It is reasonably believed that when "the men of Hezekiah" completed their work of transcribing the different books, Hezekiah himself should have affixed his own sign manuals at the end, thus confirming their work by royal guarantee.
Now all these things point in one direction: Hezekiah and his guild of Hebrew literary experts had great deal to do with the preserving and transmitting of the Old Testament as they have come down to us today. Is this really surprising? Look a bit deeper. In Hezekiah's reign the time had come when it was imperative that such a work should be done. It was in Hezekiahs days, that the ten tribes of northern kingdom, Israel, was swept into captivity by the Assyrians, and dispersed among the cities of the Medes (2 Kings 18:11). Only the kingdom of Judah (southern) was now left, of which Hezekiah was king, at Jerusalem: and even Judah's days were numbered. Only five kings were to follow Hezekiah before the Judah's Babylonian exile. Out of those five kings, four were ungodly failures. The moment had come for the bringing together and editing of the inspired Scriptures, with a view to their safe preservation and transmission. This great task need divine guidance. Who should be God's man other than godly king Hezekiah? And the time was more suitable than that of those God given fifteen years? We have real reason to thank God for good king Hezekiah, that he was found so eminently worthy of those extra fifteen years, and that he did so much for posterity by his "work" in the Scripture.
An intriguing further significance of those fifteen years, Hezekiah's sickness and recovery, solve a problem which has battled exegeses of the Old Testament for more than 2000 years. If we open the Book of Psalms, there is one group of psalms, which has always had a special interest. It consists of Psalms 120 to 134. These fifteen psalms are known as "The Songs of Degrees" (KJV -most accurate translation from Septuagint/Hebrew text) or the " Songs of Ascents", because over each of them we find the title, "A Song of Degrees/A song of Ascent".
To what does this title refer? Well, an old Jewish notion was that these fifteen psalms were so called because they were sung, each in order, on the fifteen steps of the Temple. But the difficulty is to prove that there ever were fifteen steps to the Temple. Nor do other suggested explanations fare much better Luther took the title as meaning, "A Song in the higher choir", while Calvin, thought it meant that these psalms were sung in a higher key. Bishop Jebb's idea was that these psalms were so called because they were sung in connection with the "going up" of the Ark to Mount Zion. Other outstanding scholars, taking the Hebrew word as meaning "ascents" rather than "degrees", have supposed that gradation, or series of ascents in the poetic parallelism of these psalms is indicated, in which each line of a parallel carries the meaning of its predecessor a degree further or an ascent higher; but the difficulty about this supposed explanation is that not all these fifteen psalms posses this feature. Some modern school makes all these psalms post-exilic, that the exiles sang when they returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian captivity. Others spiritualize the psalms, and interpret them as referring to the Church; but the psalms themselves speak only of Israel, Judah, Jerusalem and Zion. Suggestions are plenty; but none of these explanations fit truly to the psalms. What, then, of these fifteen 'Song of Degrees'? Is there a really satisfactory solution? There is, and we need not go outside the Bible or to the Tradition of the Fathers. The explanation is in Bible itself.
To be ontinued...
Fr. Dr. V.C. Varghese, Sugar Land, Tx.