Where in the world would you most like to visit? The Grand Canyon? South Africa? Everest base camp?
And where in the world do you most care about? Perhaps it’s Kemsing? Or the village where you were born? The place your parents live and brought you up? A country you used to work in as an expat?
Two questions about geography: Where would you most like to visit? About which place’s wellbeing do you most care?
Part of the fun in hearing about other people’s travels is that you get to hear about places you might not have known about, or that you might have underestimated. Maybe it even changes the top of your list, gives you a heart for a new place.
That’s what Psalm 122 is designed to do to you. It takes the places that we want to visit, the places we care about, and tries to write a new place into our hearts, top of the list, cared about deeply.
A psalm is a prayer or a hymn, and we call the person who wrote it the “psalmist”. This psalmist says: Have you considered Jerusalem? Let me share with you why it’s where I’d like to go more than anywhere else in the world. Let me tell you why I care so deeply about Jerusalem’s welfare. And see if you start to care, too.
We’re going to let this writer enthuse with us about Jerusalem. And then we’re going to work out how that recalibrates our geography – our wish list, our care-deeply-about list. And we’re going to do that as modern-day Christians, not as Jews who lived before Christ.
The psalmist says three things about Jerusalem – two reasons why he loves the city, and then one why way in which he cares about the city.
City of united praise
First, then a reason why he loves the city: It’s a city of united praise. United praise.
Jerusalem was all about unity. Ancient Israel was made up of twelve tribes. It was always a fragile exercise keeping them all together. Try keeping 50 United States of America together. In Kenya, there are between 40 and 70 tribes, all bound into a single nation by their colonial history – one reason why election time is always tense.
But Israel was twelve tribes, in one nation. Because they worshipped one God. In the book of Deuteronomy, God stressed that there would be a single place in their land where he would set his name. Whatever tribe you were from, that was where you had to go for certain parts of your worship. And by the time this Psalm was written, that place was Jerusalem.
So Jerusalem was about unity. Verse 3, it was compact. Cheek-by-jowl. It’s layout said that this was a place where people were thrust together. Verse 4, this was the place where all the tribes “went up”. Just as you go up to London, so you went up to Jerusalem, to worship, according to God’s statute.
United. United in praise. What was wonderful was not the mere fact that all the tribes came together in Jerusalem. But the fact that they came together to praise God. The tribes were a congregation, gathering to praise and to worship.
One God. So they worshipped him together. In Jerusalem. A city of united praise.
City of good government
Second, he loves the city because it’s a city of good government. Good government.
That’s verse 5: “There stand the thrones for judgement, the thrones of the house of David.”
The twelve tribes worshipped one God. They also had a single king. Jerusalem was the capital city, the seat of government
The people handled small disputes where they lived. But anything big or controversial would be taken to the king. The king was the highest judge in the land. Jerusalem was the ancient equivalent of the supreme court, so recently in the news. The highest court in the land.
Picture an Israelite who had been wronged. A neighbour had stolen his property, or injured his animal. He knew that God was good and right. But that earthed in Jerusalem. The early kings were good. So the thought of going to Jerusalem warmed this psalmist’s heart. Here was the place where godly kings applied the word of God to daily life. So the people could get along and live peaceably.
A city of good government.
City of peace
That’s why he loves the city. Then he tells us the way in which he cares about the city: It is a city of peace. City of peace.
That’s what the name, Jerusalem, means. “City of peace.”
Verse 6: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.”
Walls. Citadels. Ramparts. Battlements. Great for keeping enemies out.
But we all know that you don’t need enemies out there to destroy a city, a country, a political party, a business. We’re perfectly capable of turning on ourselves, and destroying ourselves from within. Put 12 tribes close together, in a crowded city, it would be easy to fall out.
So he prays that the city would be at peace. Both the absence of conflict. And a total wellbeing, thriving at all levels of life.
Jerusalem needed this. Verse 8: “For the sake of my family and friends”. I’ve got friends and family who live there. They need the city to be at peace, harmony, doing well.
Verse 9: “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God”. Jerusalem is where God chose to put his temple, the place on earth where we can meet him. We can’t risk the temple ending up in a war-zone or in a backwater. The city needs to be a peace, harmony, doing well.
We’ve seen in parts of Iraq what happens when priceless archaeological treasures end up in a country in civil war. Those treasures get trampled. Jerusalem was so precious, it had to be a city that thrived.
So he prays for the city. He cares for the city. And he works for peace as well – the last words of the Psalm: “I will seek your prosperity.”
City of united praise. City of good government. Needs to be a city of peace.
Ask this writer where in the world he’d like to visit, he’d start hopping up and down with excitement, and say “Jerusalem.” Ask him where in the world he most cares about, and he’d again say “Jerusalem”, and then start talking about peace and well-being.
The chances are that this all feels a little distant for us. We’re not one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Our monarch is not descended from David. And the modern city of Jerusalem is everything but a place of peace.
We have to read on in the Bible, because we live in the Christian era, and things are a little different. Please turn to Luke chapter 19, page 1054.
A visit to Jerusalem filled our psalmist with joy. Here’s a complete contrast: “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.’”
Jesus came to Jerusalem as the prince of peace. He was the ultimate son of David. His arrival was the chance for the prayer of Psalm 122 to be answered. David’s throne would be occupied by the one with every right to sit there. True peace and well-being would come to the city, and overflow to the world.
But that’s not what happened. Jesus says to the city: “you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.” She did not know “on this day what would bring you peace.” They rejected Jesus, and killed him. They rejected the chance to be the city of peace. So, says Jesus, Jerusalem will be torn down. Because they did not recognise God’s true king and God’s true peace, Jerusalem will not be recognisable.
You’re painting a landscape picture. Oils. You’re after a picture to hang in your hallway. It takes weeks. Visitors to your house marvel at your skill. But then the picture goes wrong. The sky doesn’t come out right. It’s not going to be the one.
God spent hundreds of years building up Jerusalem. But then things go wrong. It’s not going to the city of peace it looked like it might be.
But does that mean you don’t get a picture in your hallway? No – you blow up the photo you were painting, and hang that instead.
And does that mean that we cannot go to Jerusalem? That the city that Psalm 122 was hopping up and down about with excitement no longer exists? We can read about a great and exciting place, but we can’t go there ourselves?
Not quite. The next place we have to turn is Hebrews chapter 12. Page 1211. I’ll read from verse 22: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
There isn’t only one Jerusalem. There are two. There’s the city 30 miles inland from the eastern Mediterranean. And there’s one in heaven. As Paul says in Philippians chapter 3, our citizenship is in heaven. We belong there. The city in the Middle East was just a shadow of the heavenly Jerusalem. A painting based upon the real thing. And ever since the earthly Jerusalem rejected its chance to be the city that brings peace to the world, the heavenly one is now the one to go to.
If the earthly Jerusalem was wonderful because that’s where God’s people united in praise, just look at this. “Thousands upon thousands of angels, in joyful assembly, the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.”
If the earthly Jerusalem was wonderful because that’s where the kings sat as judges to bring peace to their people, just look at this: “You have come to God, the judge of all, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” This is the heavenly throne room, where God himself is the judge. And where there is not only perfect justice, but also perfect mercy.
If it was exciting for the psalmist to go to Jerusalem, how much more exciting is it to get to go to the heavenly Jerusalem. Put that at the top of the list, places I must visit, no matter what.
What’s more, we can. Hebrews 12 says this: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” “You have come.” Not “you might one day go there”. Not “try really hard to be good and you might just qualify”. “You have come”. If you are a Christian, you are a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem. And as we gather week by week to worship Jesus, we join in with the worship that is going on in heaven right now. Our worship here, week by week, is part of the worship in the heavenly Jerusalem.
The thought of coming to church should trigger the same excitement that launched Psalm 122. “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” What, really? We can go? Yes, we can. Right now. Sunday morning.
But maybe Sunday morning doesn’t feel like we’re in the heavenly Jerusalem. Maybe if that’s our expectation, there’s a bit of an anti-climax to it when we get here. Don’t worry – this isn’t all there is. The book of Revelation describes the day when Jesus returns. That’s when the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. That’s when heaven comes to earth, and we actually get to live in the heavenly Jerusalem. That’s when the people of God will be united in praise. That’s when God will rule and judge the world to bring in perfect and lasting peace.
Pray for Peace
Until that day, we don’t only put the heavenly Jerusalem at the top of the places we want to visit. We also put it top of the list of places we care about. We commit ourselves to pray for its peace and wellbeing, to work for its peace and wellbeing.
Jesus has made us citizens of his precious united and united city. We make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We follow Jesus as our King. What he says, goes, because he’s the source of our peace.
And we invite others. We spread the good news of Jesus, proclaiming peace, announcing news of happiness.
Let me read again the opening words of our Psalm: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
The heavenly Jerusalem should be the place that we’re most excited about going to. Those words, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord,’ should put a spring in our step, set our hearts pounding with excitement.
And they’re words we can speak to others. We can invite others to join us on our pilgrimage. “Come with me to the heavenly Jerusalem. It’s really very, very good. Come with me to Jesus. He’s really very, very good.”