Psalm 122 is the third in a series of fifteen psalms that begin with the words, A song of ascents. Of these fifteen chapters, only four name David as the author. One chapter names David’s son Solomon (Psalm 127). The remaining ten chapters in this series do not name an author at all. This is not unusual, many psalms do not name the author in the opening verse.
Since ten of fifteen psalms in this series do not name the author, it is worth studying those psalms that do mention David. Had Psalm 122 been written without the words “Of David” at the beginning, would that change the meaning of the psalm? Since most psalms in this series do not mention David, we must ask, why is he mentioned here?
Let’s put this another way. David composed most of the book of Psalms. While many chapters were written by other authors, those authors are almost always named in the opening phrases of the Psalms. These phrases are called superscriptures. Open a bible and look through the Psalms and you will notice these superscriptures right at the beginning of most chapters in the book. Most psalms include the name of the author, but many do not. When David composed the fifteen chapters titled “A Song of Ascents,” he chose to include his name in the superscripture in only four. Therefore, wherever David included his name in one of these chapters, we must assume that the explicit mention of David by name is important to the content and meaning of the psalm. So, why did David include his name here at the start of Psalm 122?
David never saw the Temple
The subject of this psalm is the Temple and Jerusalem. As the opening verse states:
שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שָׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהֹוָה נֵלֵךְ׃
SHIR ha-ma-a-LOT l’-da-VID sa-MACH-tee b’-om-REEM LEE, BAYT a-do-NAI nay-LEKH
A song of ascents. Of David. I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of Hashem.”
The psalm goes on to describe the grandeur and importance of Jerusalem.
It is interesting to note that David himself was never in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was built by his son, King Solomon, after David died. This was not merely an unfortunate circumstance of David’s life. Rather, the fact that David did not live to see the Temple built was an explicit decree by God.
David said to Solomon:
וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִיד לִשְׁלֹמֹה בנו [בְּנִי] אֲנִי הָיָה עִם־לְבָבִי לִבְנוֹת בַּיִת לְשֵׁם יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָי׃
vai-YO-mer da-VEED lish-LO-mo (b’-NO) [b’-NEE] a-NEE ha-YA im l’-va-VA-vee l’-no-TOT ba-YEET l’-SHEM a-do-NAI e-lo-HAI
David said to Shlomo, “My son, I wanted to build a House for the name of Hashem my God.
וַיְהִי עָלַי דְּבַר־יְהֹוָה לֵאמֹר דָּם לָרֹב שָׁפַכְתָּ וּמִלְחָמוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת עָשִׂיתָ לֹא־תִבְנֶה בַיִת לִשְׁמִי כִּי דָּמִים רַבִּים שָׁפַכְתָּ אַרְצָה לְפָנָי׃
vai-HI a-LAI d’-var a-do-NAI lay-MOR: DAM la-ROV sha-FAKH-ta u-mil-kha-MOT g’-DO-lot a-SEE-ta, lo tiv-NEH va-YIT lish-MEE, KEE da-MEEM ra-BEEM sha-FAKH-ta ar-TZA l’-fa-NAI.
But the word of Hashem came to me, saying,‘You have shed much blood and fought great battles; you shall not build a House for My name for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.
הִנֵּה־בֵן נוֹלָד לָךְ הוּא יִהְיֶה אִישׁ מְנוּחָה וַהֲנִחוֹתִי לוֹ מִכָּל־אוֹיְבָיו מִסָּבִיב כִּי שְׁלֹמֹה יִהְיֶה שְׁמוֹ וְשָׁלוֹם וָשֶׁקֶט אֶתֵּן עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּיָמָיו׃
hi-NEH-ven no-LAD LAKH, HU yi-HEH eeSH me-NU-khah, va-ha-nee-KHO-tee LO mi-KOL o-y’-VAI-v mi-SA-veev, KEE she-LO-mo yi-HEH she-MO, va-sha-LOM va-she-KET e-TEYN al yis-ra-AYL b’-ya-MAV
But you will have a son who will be a man at rest, for I will give him rest from all his enemies on all sides; Shlomo will be his name and I shall confer peace and quiet on Yisrael in his time.
David was a warrior who had killed many men. He yearned to build a temple to God. Yet, God told David that he could not be the one to build the Temple. The Temple would only be built under the reign of his son, after David was gone. David would never visit the house of the Lord built in Jerusalem. So what did David mean when he wrote: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
The Lesson of David’s Joy
Despite God’s decree, David still rejoiced over the thought of a Temple that he would never merit to visit. He rejoiced over a future that he would not live to experience. This joy is a lesson for all people of faith.
To illustrate the point: Imagine if God told you that the Messiah will come shortly after your own life has ended. Would you still rejoice over the good news of the Messiah’s imminent arrival? Would it be bittersweet? David rejoiced in the thought of the Temple in Jerusalem even though the Temple would be built only after David was gone from the world.
All who have faith in the God of Israel know that the end of history is good. God will redeem the world. Knowledge of God will one day fill the earth. Evil and falsehood will be defeated. The biblical promises of the glorious future for the world are certain. And yet, each and every one of us knows that we may not be fortunate enough to live to see the Kingdom of God on this earth. We yearn for it while knowing that this lengthy historical process may very well reach its glorious conclusion after we are gone. Are we still able to rejoice in the promises of the future? Are we joyous and grateful as we envision the great redemption of humanity that may occur after we are gone, even though we will not live to see it?
This is not a small challenge for our lives of faith. It forces us to confront a fundamental question regarding our devotion to God’s purposes. We know that the long march of history will end with the knowledge of God covering the earth like water covers the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). We know that we make our contributions to this future when we live our lives according to the expressed will of God. But what really motivates us? Are we in it for ourselves, or to serve God?
When we rejoice over a future that we will not live to see we make a powerful statement. It’s not about me. It’s about God and His kingdom. It is only fitting that we learn this lesson from King David, the anointed of Israel. David knew that he would not see the Temple, and yet the thought of the Temple brought him joy.
We show our devotion to God when we rejoice over the future, even as we acknowledge that we may not live to see it. The kingdom of God is a certainty. We must rejoice in this knowledge regardless of how far in the future it may be.
This article was taken from Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s new book, Verses for Zion. Verses for Zion offers a profound exploration of devotional Bible teachings, intricately woven around the land, people, and God of Israel. Each page is a journey through history and faith, illuminating biblical narratives with insightful interpretations and spiritual wisdom. Click here to order your copy of Verses for Zion now.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast