Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem's Temples

Codes hidden for 3,000 years unveil the origin of the fifteen Songs of Ascents. Mysterious marks in medieval manuscripts disclose the lost temple song. Rabbinic traditions reveal the place of the ark of the covenant. And the secret message of the Book of Psalms is laid bare.

What do you get when you cross a period-performance Director of Music with a specialist on the Psalms? Answer: The ultimate book on the Psalms in Temple worship. In this book of 120,000 words, the largest ever written on the Songs of Ascents, I wear both my hats to show how these Psalms were sung in ancient Israel. Want to know more? It's all here in fifteen chapters, with 27 pictures, 14 tables, and 29 musical examples.

Paperback (March 2015)

xviii+292 pp. 6 x 9 inches

ISBN: 978-1508745358

US 22.49 UK 17.25 EU 20.31

Chap. 5. Where is the Ark of the Covenant?


David Mitchell’s Songs of Ascents is a fresh direction in the study of the Psalms. 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, FBAOriel & Lang Professor of the Interpretation of Holy ScriptureOriel College, Oxford

The Songs of Ascents establishes a long-overdue link between the worlds of Biblical Studies and Near Eastern Archaeomusicology. 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 DumbrillProfessor of Near Eastern ArchaeomusicologyUniversity 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 GillinghamProfessor of the Hebrew BibleWorcester 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. He 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), he 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 HunterHonorary Research FellowFaculty of Theology and Religious Studies, Glasgow UniversitySociety of Old Testament Studies Book Review 2016

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 DaffernChaplain, Jesus College, OxfordExpository 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 WitteLehrstuhl für Exegese und Literaturgeschichte des Alten Testaments, Humboldt-Universität, BerlinZeitschrift für die alttestamentlichen Wissenschaft Book Review, June 2017

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

In The Songs of Ascents, David Mitchell creates 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. 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. Most importantly, through a detailed study of Psalms 120-134 and a survey of ancient Israelite worship, I can say I understand Scripture better. 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 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.


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, May 2017