31 Living the song of ascents

Psalm 134

The other night I worked third shift.

It’s not my usual time to work. I did it for the summer I turned sixteen. But since then, I usually sleep at night, not work.

But I spent a couple nights at the hospital, working as a chaplain. As I walked toward the building, I thought about Psalm 134.

“Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who minister by night in the house of the Lord. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord.”[1]

It’s the last of the songs of ascent, the traveling songs for the people of Israel.[2] As they journeyed to Jerusalem for their annual pilgrimage, they sang these songs by campfire and on the road. And songs have a way of working themselves into your lives.

Most of the songs could be sung by anyone. But this one was for the Levites working in the temple on the overnight shift. Keeping watch. Tending fires. Being present with God. When you’ve come to the temple to worship, you want to know that the staff are taking worship seriously.

A hospital at night is an interesting place. The public spaces are mostly empty. Just a couple people napping in the Intensive Care lounges, one man napping while waiting for someone’s surgery to end. But in the darkened hallways of the critical care units, you’ll see nurses with glowing faces ministering by night, recording vital signs in electronic charts. You’ll see staff running an all-night grill for co-workers eating whatever meal falls at 2 am. And you’ll hear emergency room staff remembering high school Spanish to speak with a young patient.

And you’ll find chaplains. Aware that a death at midnight still calls for compassion. A crisis call to a family at 6 am calls for alertness.

So on a good night, you remember to remind yourself to praise the Lord. So you are ready to help those who can’t.


  1. Psalm 134:1, NIV.
  2. Thanks to Eugene Peterson for this understanding. Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982.

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Before You Walk In Copyright © 2018 by Jon Charles Swanson. All Rights Reserved.

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