The Songs of Ascents
The Songs of Ascents

David Mitchell’s
Songs of Ascents is a fresh direction in the study of the Psalms. In the twentieth century scholars tended to regard the Psalms as ‘early’ (stemming from Solomon’s Temple), against the older idea that they belonged to Second Temple Judaism, and there were many reconstructions of the kind of liturgy they belonged to. More recently, interest has shifted to the Psalter as a book, a compilation showing signs of deliberate design. Mitchell is the first scholar to combine these interests. The Psalms of Ascents, he argues, were composed not only for Solomon’s Temple but actually for its dedication; yet they represent also a coherent collection, with shared themes and a progression of thought. Drawing on his musical knowledge, he also shows how they may have been sung, here adapting and developing the theories of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura about the meaning of the Masoretic cantillation signs.
John Barton, FBA   
Oriel & Lang Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture   
Oriel College, Oxford   

The Songs of Ascents establishes a long-overdue link between the worlds of Biblical Studies and Near Eastern Archaeomusicology. Since the 18th century, there had been attempts at decoding the music of the Bible, most of them unsuccessful. Even recent contemporary studies have generally avoided the complex analysis of musical cantillation marks which appear on rare manuscripts. In his book, Mitchell addresses the issue with great competence and meticulousness. He has combined researches on both church and synagogue musical traditions, and depicts a credible picture of how the psalms would have been sung in ancient Jerusalem.
Richard Dumbrill   
Professor of Near Eastern Archaeomusicology   
University of London

David Mitchell takes just one collection of fifteen psalms to recreate a scholarly and engaging account which brings together, in an original but careful way, the disciplines of the Hebrew language, psalmody, and music. For anyone interested in how the psalms functioned as ancient Temple Songs, and how this might apply to our appreciation of them in synagogues and churches today, this book is an absolute gem.
Susan Gillingham   
Professor of the Hebrew Bible   
Worcester College, Oxford   

Since the publication of Suzanne Haȉk-Vantoura’s La musique de la Bible révélée in 1976 the quest to identify a musical interpretation of the Masoretic cantillation marks in the poetic biblical books has acquired some impetus. David Mitchell, combining musical expertise and biblical scholarship, has made in this monograph a significant contribution to this on-going quest. M identifies a persuasive chain of tradition which could support the view that the cantillations are a genuine representation of a musical tradition known to the Masoretes, but subsequently lost. Building on Haȉk-Vantoura’s work, and using as a test case the Gregorian tonus peregrinus for Psalm 114 (whose melody is echoed in both Sephardic and Ashkenazi melodies for the same Psalm) M provides a musical understanding of the cantillations which transfers into explicit musical directions (which he reproduces) for each of the Psalms of Ascents. This study deserves to be taken very seriously indeed.
Dr Alastair Hunter   
Honorary Research Fellow, 
Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, 
Glasgow University   
Society of Old Testament Studies Book Review 2016   

Dramatic Exegesis of the Songs of Ascents. David Mitchell's book contains a broad range of explorations of these fifteen psalms, which betrays engagement with many pertinent questions about the Psalms, worship in the Jerusalem Temples, and ancient music. Mitchell's reading is thorough and eclectic, his thinking is imaginative and novel, and his writing engaging and thought-provoking....This is an enjoyable book for a musician and Psalms scholar.
Dr Megan Daffern   
Chaplain, Jesus College, Oxford   
Expository Times Book Review 2017   

This study, in a unique combination of psalter exegesis, historical localization, and music-historical observations, reveals the thesis that Psalms 120-134 were redacted between 975 and 959 BC for the consecration of Solomon’s Temple on 15 Ethanim (Tishri) 959 BC, and that one of each of these 15 psalms was sung during the Succoth festival on the 15 steps of the Temple of Jerusalem. The author proposes that the poets of these psalms were David (for Ps. 122, 124, 131, and 133), Solomon (for Psalm 127), and, by virtue of its Aramaic coloring, Jeduthun and the Merarite Levites (Ps. 120, 121, 123, 125, 126, 130, and 132). In these attributions, and in the reconstruction of the original chant, Mitchell draws on the masoretic cantillation, on rabbinic and early Christian sources on psalmody, on ancient oriental representations of musicians and instruments, and also on gematria. In the interpretation of the Psalms he tends to the fourfold sense of Scripture. In addition to numerous illustrations, including a picture of where the ark, which Josiah of Judah hid in the face of the destruction announced by the prophets of Jerusalem, once stood. This remarkable book also contains notation of the melodies of individual psalms and a bold hypothesis for the original pronunciation of the tetragrammaton.
Professor Markus Witte   
Lehrstuhl für Exegese und Literaturgeschichte des Alten Testaments, Humboldt-Universität, Berlin   
Zeitschrift für die alttestamentlichen Wissenschaft Book Review, June 2017   

A delightful read. The Songs of Ascents is a fascinating and rich study of Psalms 120 through 134. David Mitchell, biblical scholar, Hebraist, and musicologist, offers not only detailed exegesis, with sound use of gematria, and covers historical background and authorship concerns, but he also provides music sheets, reconstructing the original music of each psalm through the Masoretic cantillation. No newcomer to the study of psalms, Mitchell’s 1997 monograph, The Message of the Psalter, marked a decisive contribution to the field. This work is well-researched enough to inform scholars, yet well-written enough to be enjoyed by lay-level readers. Along with helpful commentary, Mitchell addresses enticing topics, like the original occasion for the songs of ascent, and the (current) location of the ark of the covenant. Highly recommended.
Mm, review   

David C. Mitchell is a Biblical scholar, archaeomusicologist and the author of the influential The Message of the Psalter released back in 1997. In The Songs of Ascents, he applies these skills to create a fresh and novel study on Psalms 120-134. Though he calls it a “commentary”, one soon recognizes a book that surpasses expectations from this label by encompassing ancient Israelite worship. If this still sounds too narrow or abstract, let me spoil the ending: this would have been a strong contender for my favourite book of 2015 if I had read it before the end of the year. Mitchell wants to contribute something new to the study of these Psalms, so four avenues are pursued in In The Songs of Ascents:

  1. Mitchell aims to recover the ancient music of the Songs of Ascents. Upon first skimming through the book, I was shocked to see sheet music for each Psalm that attempts to capture the original music. Mitchell argues that the music of the Psalms is recoverable; this is “the first Psalms commentary to attempt a printed version of the ancient music of the Psalms” (x).
  2. Many studies have attempted to reconstruct theoretical settings for individual Psalms, while others have reacted by focusing only on the text. Mitchell avoids both paths and attempts to “reconstruct the ritual and liturgical context in which the Songs of Ascents were first sung” (x). He goes so far as to propose not only the single event for which they were created, but an exact date, even to the hour, of when these songs were first sung!
  3. Mitchell considers the different layers to these Psalms, such as historical events that lay behind them (Davidic covenant in Ps 132, situation of the kingdom at the time, etc) but also how they were later used prophetically. In their placement within the Psalter context, they contributed to the Messiah’s coming kingdom.
  4. Finally, numerology, or gematria, is employed. Though modern biblical scholarship has generally avoided gematria due to abuse and excess, Mitchell argues that “it has always been intrinsic to rabbinic interpretation” (x) and that it plays a significant role in the Ascents that shouldn’t be ignored.
Outline. Over the course of fifteen chapters, Mitchell examines the Ascents from different perspectives. In chapter one, the Songs of Ascents are seen as their own collection, within a collection (Psalter), within a collection (Bible). Unique features include a focus on Zion, a meta-narrative flow, and intentional structures. In chapter two, restrained numerology (gematria) is applied to reveal surprising “encoded messages” within the collection (p15).Chapter three explains that ma’alot is translatable as either “ascents” or “steps”, and thus applicable both to pilgrimages to Jerusalem and also the 15 steps of Solomon’s temple.Chapter four surveys the options for when this collection was written and compiled, and concludes that only the period from Solomon’s temple until his death (959-930BC) matches the details. So what period in Solomon’s reign would provoke this collection? Chapter five lays the foundation for Mitchell’s argument by giving a history of the ark, while chapter six answers the question by arguing that the Ascents form the liturgy of the ark’s entry into Solomon’s temple (see Ps 132). Chapter seven explores the authorship of these Psalms, suggesting that the ten anonymous Psalms are the work of Jeduthun and the Merarite Levites. 
    Chapters eight through thirteen form a larger unit in the book devoted to the music of these Psalms. Chapter eight begins with the temple musicians and their instruments, while chapter nine is about singers and cantillation. Chapter ten uses rabbinic literature to recreate the Sukkot liturgy before AD70, and uses this as a lens to imagine that of Solomon’s time. Chapter eleven surveys the recent attempts to recover ancient melodies of the Psalms through the Masoretic cantillation, and chapter twelve explains how these are deciphered and applied in modern musical theory. In the longest chapter of the book, chapter thirteen provides sheet music for each of the 15 Ascent Psalms and a few pages of commentary that incorporates musical and liturgical insights. Chapter fourteen asks the question of why these songs were preserved if the kingdom, king, and temple were all gone when the Psalter was completed. The answer: these Psalms take on new eschatological hope for the ingathering of God’s people to Zion, according with the hopes passages like Zechariah 14:16Micah 4:2, and Isaiah 2:3.Chapter fifteen concludes the book by explaining the relevance of the Psalms for today and the power of music. Four appendices explore the name of YHWH, the historicity of Solomon’s temple, the Hebrew calendar, and the debated meaning of two cantillation marks. 
    Evaluation. As I said at the beginning of the review, this is one of the best books I have read recently. It opened my eyes in many ways and was filled with provocative insights and suggestions. I was surprised how fruitful and frankly, fascinating, a study of ancient music and liturgy could be and how much could be known. Some of Mitchell’s suggestions are controversial and even idiosyncratic, but how else would one propose new ideas? I find the majority of the unique arguments within The Songs of Ascents compelling, and mostly convincing. His suggestion for the origin and purpose of Psalms 120-134 makes perfect sense and filled these Psalms with fresh significance. It’s stunning how a close reading of these Psalms can lead to not only the event for which these were composed, but even the day and hour of when these songs were first sung. Beyond the Ascents, one finds comprehensive information (with illustrations) about ancient worship, making this a useful resource for other texts referencing instruments and worship. This says nothing of the several rabbit trails, such as the discussions regarding the proper pronunciation of YHWH, or the current location of the ark (yes, you read correctly). As if the heart of the book were not interesting enough as it is, these diversions are fascinating and provocative. More than most I’ve read recently, The Songs of Ascents inspired numerous study detours before I could return to the book. Most importantly, through a detailed study of Psalms 120-134 and a survey of ancient Israelite worship, I can say I understand Scripture better. Small niggles, such as a lack of Scripture index, some noticeable typos, and common references to Psalms without specifying verse numbers, are unfortunate but hardly detrimental.
    The Songs of Ascents deserves a wide audience. Those interested in the Psalms and/or ancient music and liturgy, with a basic knowledge of Hebrew and a decent understanding of musical theory, will glean the most. However, I wish that all Christians would read this book as it opens up Biblical concepts and no doubt covers neglected blind spots in our understanding of ancient Israelite worship. Since the Psalms is one of the most popular books of the Bible, plumbing its depths is never a wasted opportunity.
Lindsay Kennedy   

I am not a scholar either in Biblical exegesis or in musicology. I am just a faithful follower of Jesus and an avid amateur church musician. This is a dense book for the lay reader and yet is incredibly readable. It opened up avenues of inquiry that made my head spin with delight. I found myself sitting with this book in one hand and the Bible in the other checking references, going on trails of my own, and then putting my computer out as my "third" hand to see who might agree or shed light on the things Mitchell is suggesting. I would love to worship at least once using the suggested format for these psalms! I recommend this for anyone who is curious, imaginative, likes to struggle with ideas, and is open to the Spirit moving.
Simon Jeynes, May 2017